ABC Family offers an evening television show that my family enjoys entitled, Switched at Birth. A recent episode focused on prom night for teenagers. Parents remove alcohol from the party but actively provide a hotel suite and condoms for their teens (hoping they won’t be used). Drinking alcohol is forbidden. Sex is provided for. Good parents find our cultural moment confusing. Why?
One answer suggests desire. Happiness equals getting what we want. But most parents learn the fallacy of this with their kids. A kid’s desire is synonymous neither with health nor wisdom. My parents said “no” to my lighting a half burned firework. I did it anyway. I couldn’t hear for a day. We know this fallacy when kids want alcohol. We commend waiting. Why then is a kid’s desire for sex different in our eyes?
This is legal, this is not
Perhaps legality is the answer. American law says that the nature of alcohol requires that we who use it do so wisely and with care. Therefore we commend our youth to wait for a certain age in order to have the life experience necessary to drink. We have deemed it wise as a culture to sometimes ask a person to wait for good things.
But the legal argument quickly dissatisfies as it relates to sex. The limits of legality expose how a fifteen year old can have consensual sex with another and not go to jail but cannot watch sex in a rated R movie for two more years. But even when something is legal it does not mean that we who legally take it up have the maturity to do so. Drunken college juniors prove this point every weekend.
Our Moral Maxims
So we feel the need to add moral maxims. Safe sex means using birth control. Responsible drinking means making sure someone else drives us home. But these maxims also leave us wanting.
The prom episode exemplifies this. A boy professes love for his girlfriend but he hooks up with a different girl. “It was a mistake,” he admits. The girl he slept with is the girlfriend of his close friend, and also a nemesis to the one he loves. He is guilt ridden and taunted by sexual flashbacks. The result is broken friendships damaged by betrayal. Even these unmarried ones, when they take on the actions of marriage with each other, can feel the divorce-like shock waves of an adultery-like action. The poet Rilke reminds us that there are serious things in life that are worth learning and must be handled with care. Serious things are difficult things. “Sex is a difficult thing,” he reminds.
Tired of Religion
We tire of dried up religious people telling us about how bad and joyless sex and drink are when we all know that both are wonderful and can make us feel quite good. But our current secular ideals aren’t faring much better for us. Because one uses birth control does not mean that the sex is safe. Yes, the consequence of children is limited. But the show reminds us that the consequences of giving our bodies to another for use are many, deep and lasting. Similarly, because one has someone drive them home does not mean that they have treated others responsibly in the meantime. I’m sure the drunken group who meanly harassed us at the game the other night had a designated driver.
The Missing Conviction
Surely something profound is lacking in this cultural discussion. Jesus identified it as love. Love reminds us that how we relate sexually to our neighbors or use drink with them, requires more than legality, more than desire and more than making sure that our unwanted consequences are minimized.
Love asks deeper questions than, “can I buy you a drink,” or “who can drive” or “do you want me” or “are we safe from having children?” Parents do not have to be afraid to suggest this fact, but we are. Kids needn’t think it boring or over the top to consider it, but they do. And yet, like the law, our cultural norms uphold only the minimum behavior requirement of cabs and condoms as our way of relating well to each other and this isn’t helping. Rage is legal. But this does not mean that rage is advisable. Telling one’s girlfriend that she’s fat isn’t against the law but that doesn’t make it good and noble to do. Because a person hands over his keys and wears a condom that night does not mean that he will hospitably and humbly relate to people, and yet we will pat him on the back for acting safely and responsibly.
Where then are we headed? In the show, the parents say “no” to a cooler of beer but yes to condoms and a hotel. Yet, in real life, years after our proms so many of us are in therapy wounded by love’s absence or disillusioned by love’s counterfeits. Many who have had sex early, either as an act of love for the one with whom we swore we’d always be, or as an indiscriminate act with many for the pleasures or uses of it, have regrets, wounds, diseases, annoying flashbacks or plain old wisdom learned. Many adults know that sex is a good but that when mishandled it damages us. It is for this reason that most of the sages in history have guarded sex with the love that healthy marriage assumes. Many are jettisoning that ancient wisdom. So now what?
How do the aged take this sacred wisdom and life experience to heart for the sake of those young tuxedos and dresses who are often surprised to feel adult pains when all they did was walk arm and arm as kids toward their hotel room to practice the “safety” and “responsibility” we taught them?